The GOP's Liability on the Fringe

The birther craziness, along with the innuendo about Obama's grades and the purging of dissenters, revealed a deep GOP divide that risks undermining the party going into 2012, says Howard Kurtz.

05.08.11 10:59 PM ET

The regular Tuesday meeting of the House Republican caucus grew heated last month when some of the more seasoned lawmakers said it was time to “shut up,” as one put it, about the birther issue.

The caucus has 85 new members, more than 30 of whom are new to elective office—“the kamikazes,” they are privately called—and some took strong exception to being urged not to talk about President Obama’s birth certificate. “Well, I don’t think he was born in this country,” one freshman snapped.

The birther nonsense seems especially pointless—and corrosive—when one considers that Obama was planning the helicopter raid that would kill Osama bin Laden days later, as he was releasing his long-form Hawaii certificate. Conservative author David Frum says bin Laden’s death should end the racially charged insinuations “that President Obama’s identity and loyalties lie elsewhere.”

Frum is no wild-eyed rebel; he helped coin the phrase “axis of evil” in the Bush White House and opposes virtually all of Obama’s agenda. His beef: Some Republicans view the birthers “as possible followers and want to recruit them,” while establishment types like John Boehner dislike the rhetoric “but are unwilling to challenge it.”

Karl Rove also has warned his party that “we’ve got to be very careful about allowing these people who are the birthers and the 9/11-deniers to get too high a profile and say too much without setting the record straight.”

Alan Simpson, calling the birther flap “absurd,” tells me the GOP is being pulled toward an unrelenting focus on social issues: “If the new paradigm is a test of purity, we haven’t got a prayer.”

These are the rumblings of slow-motion earthquake, a tectonic shift that may well redefine what it means to be a Republican. What was truly appalling about the birther craziness is how many in the GOP refused either to criticize those peddling the crackpot conspiracy theory—which included Donald Trump—instead offering a wink, a nod, and passive phraseology about taking the president at his word.

But the rupture here goes well beyond offering aid and comfort to those who believe the commander-in-chief is secretly a Kenyan. It has roots in John McCain putting Sarah Palin on the ticket. Right-leaning commentators who assailed Palin as unqualified were either excoriated (Kathleen Parker got 12,000 hostile e-mails, some saying she should have been aborted), forced out ( Christopher Buckley purged from National Review, the magazine founded by his father), or fired (Frum losing his job at American Enterprise Institute).

Is the GOP becoming a smaller tent where dissent is grounds for banishment?

Veteran congressman Mike Castle was booed at a 2009 town meeting when he told an angry woman waving a birth certificate that Obama is a citizen; voters dumped him for Christine O’Donnell in a Senate primary. Former Sen. Alan Simpson, calling the birther flap “absurd,” tells me the GOP is being pulled toward an unrelenting focus on social issues: “If the new paradigm is a test of purity, we haven’t got a prayer.”

Not everyone agrees. Former Newt Gingrich aide Tony Blankley says “both parties have their extremes, and their leadership can’t embrace them. But you never want to disperse the energy of your supporters. It has to be managed.” Maybe, but Democrats have never enabled the Bush-caused-9/11 nuts this way.

Both parties indulge in dishonesty when grappling with painful budget choices, but the latest Republican pandering over raising the debt ceiling also seems to flout the facts. Sure, the out-of-power party always scores cheap points when it’s time to authorize more borrowing—Obama did it during the Bush years—but some GOP lawmakers and candidates want to let the deadline pass and force the administration to prioritize its bill-paying. It’s hard to think of a better way to spook the credit markets.

With unemployment and gas prices stubbornly high, the Republicans could have a strong 2012 message—though they’re still searching for Mr. Right—if they resist these detours into birtherism and Obama’s college grades that stoke the basest of the base. Perhaps it’s time to bury the politics of ugly innuendo with the ghost of bin Laden.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast and Newsweek's Washington bureau chief, and writes the Spin Cycle blog. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.